JustProto is a compelling alternative to conventional prototyping solutions. Designed to be collaborative from the start, it’s a pretty clever web application which runs on most modern browsers, although they recommend Firefox 3.5 or later.
There are three packages on offer, but for the purposes of this review I went for the entry-level package which would normally set you back £13 per month (roughly $20US). That gives you up to three users, ten projects and more than enough storage to create some pretty huge prototypes. There is also a free, single project plan but I believe that the price-point of JustProto seems pretty fair so unless you’re really on a budget, the paid-for versions make more sense.
The registration process was straightforward – a 30 day trial on all packages is offered, giving you plenty of time to try JustProto out and decide if it’s the option for you. What you get is your own subdomain under the justproto.com domain, which is handy. It’s also possible to configure your own domain to map to this subdomain should that be important to you or your company. I didn’t play with this aspect, but I’d say that’s a useful feature.
Once you’ve logged in you’ll see a control panel as follows.
I wasn’t entirely sure what the box on the top-right hand side was meant to do – it looked like it might perhaps contain an applet so I went to a different browser to see if perhaps it was a quirk of Google Chrome. Turns out I was right – the logo uploader applet seems to have problems under Chrome on OSX. Not to worry, I can live with this.
Creating a new project is pretty straightforward – what is interesting is the fact that since this is a collaborative prototyping tool, you can have multiple users assigned to your projects.
There’s a handy little popup to allow you to assign people to your project, subject to the limitations on collaborators (which depends on the plan you are on). I didn’t investigate too far here as I was trying JustProto as a single designer, so I’ll gloss over the collaborative element in this review.
Having saved your new project, you then enter the main workspace, which is quite similar in layout to that used in Axure RP Pro if you’re familiar with it. I have to say that I was very impressed with what JustProto have achieved in what is still a web application. It looks – and feels – just like an installed application, which is no mean trick to achieve. I’m not entirely sure what JustProto is written in (viewing the source didn’t really tell me much) so I will assume that there’s some JQuery black-magic going on behind the scenes. Of course, this won’t concern you too much as a user provided it all works, which is the acid test…
Creating a Prototype
I decided that I’d create a mock-up of a simple website get me acquainted with the ways of JustProto. So, the first challenge was to find out how it all works.
On the right of the workspace there are a series of elements that you drag onto the main ‘workbench’ and then modify. There is a good range of element types to allow you to create a fairly ‘rich’ interactive prototype. This contrasts quite well with a wire-framing tool such as Balsamiq, in which the emphasis is on rough approximations of websites (without being concerned about functionality or cosmetics). I can see a strong argument to use both; starting with Balsamiq (to flesh out a concept and play with layouts) and then refine into a specific design and ‘breathe life’ into the prototype. Which, of course, can then be used to sell the concept to business stakeholders, users, investors, your parents…
Within the workbench you can also organise the various elements in your prototype and do the normal things, such as change their properties (either by adjusting them directly, such as for position or size, or by using the property pane to change things like opacity, colour and the like). I did find that, after years of using non-web-based prototyping tools such as Axure, I am accustomed to right-clicking on elements and this is one area that unfortunately the limitations of the medium created some difficulty – right clicks within Chrome, for example, result in the Chrome popup window rather than any context-sensitive menus for JustProto itself. It wouldn’t be fair to criticism JustProto for this, however, as it’s a limitation that apples to all web-applications but I felt that because the interface is just so, well, slick, I kept forgetting that it was a web-app at all.
Being an interactive-prototyping tool, navigation is supported. It’s quite easy to create menus of different types which actually work. The menu editor allows you to create flat or nested menus easily, and it’s fairly intuitive and actually better than the way that Axure does it in my opinion.
As it happens, there are shortcuts that can be used, but for some reason they didn’t work for me. I am sure this is probably something peculiar to my own setup, though. Edit: after a bit I tried this again and it now works. I can’t explain this, but the main thing is that it does work.
The Design Experience
In practice I found JustProto to be pretty slick, although the prototype I generated (using the export to html facility) was very clunky in appearance. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing – with some effort and care I am sure you can make an authentic-looking web prototype in JustProto – although at times I found fine-tuning the appearance to be somewhat fiddly. I think this was largely down to the way that multiple-selection works, which in my case would trip me up from time to time when I realised that for some reason the previously selected element would remain selected despite my clicking on another. I’m sure that this is something that the user would learn to live with over time but it did slow me down.
I was also a little confused about where JustProto actually fits into the array of prototyping tools available today. It’s certainly more fully-featured than Balsamiq and the like, but also considerably slower to use. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear to offer quite the richness of Axure RP Pro, but then that is a £500+ installable application whereas JustProto is a highly affordable web-application. The question in my mind is not so much where the application ‘lives’ – desktop or cloud, I am not too concerned – but what kind of prototyping it aims to support. In my mind it’s an Axure-Lite (in the cloud) rather than a Balsamiq-Pro. I can see its appeal to Balsamiq users looking for a more fully-featured tool than Axure users looking for an alternative.
Comparing JustProto to Balsamiq
This was never going to be easy; Balsamiq is quite the poster-child of the wire-framing world. Easy to use, affordable and reliable, it is one of those rare tools that simply ‘gets out of the way’, giving the user a clear path to express their ideas in the quickest way. Being a ‘sketch’ tool, it doesn’t concern itself with the aesthetic (beyond layout and functional form) and so is a great tool for exploring ideas and alternatives. JustProto is a slower tool to use but does offer something more closely resembling ‘real life’. With JustProto you can create a semi-functional html version of your prototype and there’s a sense of ‘integration’ into a project that you don’t really get with Balsamiq.
Comparing JustProto to Axure RP Pro
I found JustProto to be an interesting and quite compelling alternative to Axure, albeit without some of the more advanced features in that tool. For example, Axure would seem to have a greater control of events and actually modifying the properties of elements at ‘runtime’. However, JustProto is a fraction of the price and you can easily forgive the fact that it doesn’t go quite as far as Axure. My worry would be that Axure lets you build richer interactive prototypes than are possible with JustProto, which seems to be in the middle-ground between Axure and Balsamiq in what it offers.
JustProto is a fine achievement, marrying what would seem to be a near desktop-app like interface to a powerful and collaborative cloud-based prototyping engine. What it might lack in comparison to established desktop tools such as Axure are more than made up for by its temptingly low price. It might just be all the ‘interactive prototyping’ tool you ever need.